May 23, 2008

Now on DVD: "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

Here's my review from earlier in the year in The American Conservative of the Oscar-nominated film about the quadriplegic who dictated his autobiography to his secretary by blinking in code. I believe I was the only American movie reviewer to mention the controversy in Europe over whether or not the film was based on a fraud. I'm certainly the only film critic to create a model in Excel to test the plausibility of the plot.
Despite deserved Oscar nominations for Best Direction, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, and Cinematography, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," a sophisticated Triumph of the Human Spirit movie, hasn't yet been able to break out of the art house ghetto. Its ponderous title, which is both too literary and too literal (and mistranslated to boot), can't have helped help.
The film is based on a charming memoir written, incredibly, by a man able to move only his left eyelid. Jean-Dominique Bauby, the 43-year-old editor of the fashion magazine Elle, suffered a massive brain stem stroke while test-driving next year's model BMW. When he awoke from his coma, he was informed that he suffered, permanently, from "maladie de l'emmuré vivant," or "locked-in syndrome."
The unfortunate title (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon in this subtitled film's original French) comes from Bauby's metaphorical contrast of his body, which felt like it was encased in one of those vintage pressurized diving suits -- not a "diving bell," which is an open-bottomed structure -- with his mind, which could float like a butterfly through his luxurious memories. He could even relish new sights and (being French) smells. Indeed, The Diving Bell is an ode to the French genius for enjoying small pleasures.
"Blink" would have been a simpler, more evocative title because his speech therapist taught him to communicate using his eyelid. She would repeat the alphabet (re-sorted in order of frequency of use in French) until he blinked his one good eye to stop her at the right letter.
Director Julian Schnabel, the New York artist turned moviemaker, employs prodigious imagination to liven up the proceedings, filming much of it from Bauby's perspective. Nevertheless, "The Diving Bell's" pace is necessarily languid. With time on my hands, I wondered if Morse Code, which POW Jeremiah Denton used to blink "t-o-r-t-u-r-e" when displayed on North Vietnamese television, wouldn't have been faster.
Bauby composed his text in his head each morning, memorized it, and then dictated it to a secretary for three hours per day for two months. His short book of about 25,000 words was published in 1997 to rapturous reviews two days before his death.
It's a wonderful story, but is it true? Reporter Susannah Herbert has raised doubts in The Times of London, pointing out that Bauby's "secretary," the self-effacing Claude Mendibil, is a professional ghostwriter who refused to show her the original notebooks.
I calculate that to complete a first draft in two months, Bauby would have had to dictate 135 words per hour (or one letter every five or six seconds). That would be difficult, but not impossible, because Mendibil would often correctly guess many words' endings. So, I won't reject the movie's authenticity, especially because I want to believe it's true. (Certainly, though, Mendibil deserves the credit she's never claimed for the sheen of the final draft.)
One irony of the film is the attitude of veteran screenwriter Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist") toward his hero: "But there was something about him and his lifestyle that I didn't like: He was indifferent to the mother of his children, and that whole glamorous Elle magazine lifestyle … is not so admirable, is it?" To emphasize the scurrilousness of Bauby's abandonment of his old mistress for his new mistress, Harwood adds a third adorable small child to the two he actually left behind.
Perhaps Harwood suspects Bauby's stroke was brought on by the favorite hobby of skinny fashionistas, but I can find no evidence online for cocaine use. Similarly, when I had cancer in 1997, acquaintances who didn't smoke would ask my wife if I did. When she'd reply, "No," they'd go away looking pensive. Everybody deep down wants to believe that the sick brought their illnesses on themselves, because that means that, if you're careful, you'll never die.
Harwood had to invent for Bauby an emotional arc from initial suicidal depression through recovery of his will to live, because his book portrays him as remarkably chipper throughout his ordeal, espousing a Nabokovian delight in the visual details he could espy from his bed and wheelchair. The film rather misses the point that as a man of fashion, and French fashion at that, Bauby believed in the moral duty of sustaining a classy facade. Thus, he insisted on being dressed each day in his own stylish clothes, noting, "If I must drool, I may as well drool on cashmere."
Rated PG-13 for nudity, sexual content and some language.

6 comments:

Polistra said...

I've also been puzzled by the "missing Morse" in assistive tech. It's naturally faster than any sort of "wait-and-select" method, but it's rarely used. Morse would be vastly easier for blind & deaf folks as well; they generally use a clumsy method of finger-spelling inside the curled fingers of the other person. Morse would be clearer, less ambiguous and much less clumsy.

tom barnes said...

Everybody deep down wants to believe that the sick brought their illnesses on themselves, because that means that, if you're careful, you'll never die.

Hey, great comment,nowadays Humanity is so obsessively conative, so naggingly purposeful, that populations in modern, industrialized, rational economies are not at all comfortable with the irrational or just the lack of a reason. In the middle ages you could chalk up the irrational to God's will...now who can you tag with the responsibility? Uhh...it must be the corporations or the government, something big and amorphous and powerful like God. But cancer is always attributed to behavior which was why Andy Kaufman(Latka on Taxi) getting lung cancer was such a mind blow. He never smoked.

beowulf said...

Damn Steve, good catch with the morse code.

Why on God's name did they re-invent the wheel-- even the very slowest Ham Radio license (FCC elimiminted code requirement 2 years ago) only required 5 WPM morse code proficiency, that's 300 words an hour.

TGGP said...

This "facilitated communication" thing has featured much worse frauds.

Peter said...

Hey, great comment,nowadays Humanity is so obsessively conative, so naggingly purposeful, that populations in modern, industrialized, rational economies are not at all comfortable with the irrational or just the lack of a reason. In the middle ages you could chalk up the irrational to God's will...now who can you tag with the responsibility? Uhh...it must be the corporations or the government, something big and amorphous and powerful like God.

Consider the recent claims that vaccines are causing an epidemic of autism in children. There is very little or no scientific evidence supporting the claims, in fact it's not even certain that there is an autism epidemic at all, yet the belief is spreading like crazy and is leading more and more parents to leave their children unvaccinated.

Anonymous said...

"Damn Steve, good catch with the morse code."

I have to think everyone caught that one. In fact, the system the woman came up with was ridiculous, and even morse code was hardly optimal. Probably the best system would have involved a combination of blinks and eye-directional movements--something like semaphores.